Deangelis v. Protective Parents Coal.

Decision Date02 August 2018
Docket NumberNO. 02-16-00216-CV,02-16-00216-CV
Citation556 S.W.3d 836
Parties Lori DEANGELIS and Laurie Robinson, Appellants and Appellees v. PROTECTIVE PARENTS COALITION, Jennifer Olson, Deborah Logsdon, Jayne Peery, Marie Howard, and Holly Carless, Appellees and Appellants
CourtTexas Court of Appeals

Greg B. Westfall, for Appellees Peery, Jayne, Howard, Marie, Logsdon, Deborah, Olson, Jennifer, Protective Parents Coalition.

Jason C.N. Smith, Fort Worth, for Appellees Carless, Holly.

Amy M. Lorenz, Arlington, for Appellants.

PANEL: MEIER; GABRIEL and PITTMAN, JJ.

MARK T. PITTMAN, JUSTICE

After Appellants Lori DeAngelis and Laurie Robinson (the Attorneys) filed a "Petition for Depositions Before Suit" pursuant to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 202 (Rule 202 Petition), Appellees Protective Parents Coalition (PPC), Jennifer Olson, Deborah Logsdon, Jayne Peery, Marie Howard, and Holly Carless (collectively, the Court Watchers1 ) moved to dismiss the petition under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA).2 The trial court granted the Court Watchers' Motions to Dismiss and awarded them partial attorney’s fees and sanctions.

In two issues, the Attorneys challenge the dismissal and the award of attorney’s fees and sanctions. The Court Watchers, as cross-appellants, challenge the trial court’s judgment, contending that the award of attorney’s fees was too low. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the trial court’s dismissal of the Attorneys' Rule 202 Petition. Also for the reasons set forth herein, we reverse the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees because it utilized an incorrect standard to determine such fees and remand the case for further proceedings on that issue.

BACKGROUND
I. PPC’s Stated Purpose

PPC describes itself as a nonprofit organization "made up of a group of parents whose purpose is to put a spotlight on questionable practices in the family law court system" that was "formed to support parents and children who do not have a voice outside the courtroom." Also, PPC’s certificate of formation states that its purpose is to promote "the protection of minor children by holding family courts accountable." In furtherance of its stated purpose, PPC members observe family court proceedings and post statements about the proceedings on PPC’s website and its Facebook page. These publicly accessible statements can be viewed and interacted with by the general public.

It is PPC’s "general position that several attorneys who receive [family court] appointments [in Tarrant County, Texas] abuse their power and act out of a profit motive more than in the best interests of the [children] they are supposed to be representing." PPC asserts that in the process of litigating family law cases, judges, attorneys, and court staff abuse their power to the detriment of children. According to PPC, it has not been well received "by the court personnel and attorneys who are being watched and reported on" by the organization. Carless, Peery, Howard, and Logsdon have all served or serve on PPC’s board of directors, and Olson is PPC’s executive director (collectively, PPC Officers).

The Attorneys are lawyers who have served in court-appointed ad litem roles in family court proceedings in Tarrant County and are the subjects of some of the statements posted on PPC’s website and Facebook page.

II. The Attorneys File a Rule 202 Petition Seeking Oral Depositions and Documents from the Court Watchers.

In December 2015, the Attorneys filed a verified Rule 202 Petition seeking pre-suit discovery from the Court Watchers. In their Rule 202 Petition, the Attorneys alleged that they were the subject of defamatory statements published on PPC’s website and Facebook page and that these statements damaged their collective and individual reputations. The Attorneys asked the trial court to allow broad discovery from the Court Watchers, including a request that the trial court authorize depositions of each Court Watcher, ostensibly to investigate potential and anticipated defamation claims. The Attorneys also pled that if the trial court granted the petition, they would "bear the reasonable expenses" related to "obtaining the requested depositions and documents."

From PPC itself, in addition to the deposition of PPC’s authorized representative, the Attorneys sought the production of a multitude of documents and information related to twenty-five unique categories:

1. The identification of the author(s) and/or creator(s) of a banner bearing the photographs of each of the Petitioners that described the Petitioners as "three of the most family court appointed Fort Worth attorneys" published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 8:43 a.m.;
2. The documents, data compilations, and/or other evidence that supports the allegation published on the PPC Facebook Page that the Petitioners are "three of the most family court appointed Fort Worth attorneys" published on July 26, 2015 at 8:43 a.m.[;]
3. The names of each and every PPC member, officer, and/or director that requested the posting of the banner bearing the photographs of each of the Petitioners that described the Petitioners as "three of the most family court appointed Fort Worth attorneys" published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 8:43 a.m.;
4. The identification of the author(s) and/or creator(s) of the statement "one attorney representing children partnered with a district judge to take unearned attorney fees and child support from the mother of the children who out-cried inappropriate conduct by their father. Her primary motivation is attorney fees collected in each case." [sic] published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.;
5. The identification of documents, witnesses, and/or other evidence that supports the allegation that "one attorney representing children partnered with a district judge to take unearned attorney fees and child support from the mother of the children who out-cried inappropriate conduct by their father. Her primary motivation is attorney fees collected in each case." [sic] published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.;
6. The identification of the author(s) and/or creator(s) of the statement "one attorney appeared drunk at the doorsteps of a father’s home demanding to see the children she was court appointed to represent. She did not leave until the police were called" posted on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.;
7. The identification of documents, witnesses, and/or other evidence that supports the allegation that "one attorney representing children partnered with a district judge to take unearned attorney fees and child support from the mother of the children who out-cried inappropriate conduct by their father. Her primary motivation is attorney fees collected in each case." [sic] published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.;
8. The identification of the author(s) and/or creator(s) of the statement that one of the Petitioners "had the power to have her paralegal direct a Tarrant County caseworker to select and destroy records collected in a social study" published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.;
9. The identification of documents, witnesses, and/or other evidence that supports the allegation that one of the Petitioners "had the power to have her paralegal direct a Tarrant County caseworker to select and destroy records collected in a social study" published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.;
10. The identification of the paralegal and social worker referred to in the allegation that one of the Petitioner[s] "had the power to have her paralegal direct a Tarrant County caseworker to select and destroy records collected in a social study" published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.;
11. The identification of the author(s) and/or creator(s) of the statement [that] one of the Petitioners "while acting as a court appointed attorney for the child, regularly advises one of the parties to fire their current attorney and to hire one of her friends to represent them instead" published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.;
12. The identification of documents, witnesses, and/or other evidence that supports the allegation that one of the Petitioners "while acting as a court appointed attorney for the child, regularly advises one of the parties to fire their current attorney and to hire one of her friends to represent them instead" published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.;
13. The identification of the author(s) and/or creator(s) of the statement "attorneys consistently file motions to remove her as a court appointment due to misconduct and yet the judges keep appointing her" published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.[;]
14. The identification of documents, witnesses, and/or other evidence that supports the allegation that "attorneys consistently file motions to remove her as a court appointment due to misconduct and yet the judges keep appointing her" published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.;
15. The identification of each attorney referred to in the allegation that "attorneys consistently file motions to remove her as a court appointment due to misconduct and yet the judges keep appointing her" published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.[;]
16. The identification of the author(s) and/or creator(s) of the statement that one of the Petitioners "spends much of her personal time tracking down adversary clients' personal business and contacting the other party soliciting new lawsuits or vindictive acts" published on the PPC Facebook Page on July 26, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.[;]
17. The identification of documents, witnesses, and/or other evidence that supports the allegation that one of the Petitioners "spends much of her personal time tracking down adversary clients' personal business and contacting the other party soliciting new lawsuits or vindictive acts"
...

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